Birthday Lessons

I'll be turning 38 this month.

      I’ll be turning 38 this month. This will make a great excuse to eat some extra carbs of my choice and enjoy some extra family time. There isn’t a birthday cake or a party, and while I get a gift here or there, I’m long past the pile of treasures kids can sometimes receive at a birthday party. I’ve grown since those years, and not just in size. Then, I was more focused on the gift than the givers of those gifts. I now appreciate time spent with family and friends more than an item received, but part of that growth has been tied to some of those gifts and how I responded to them.

           It happened more than once: I got a gift that I didn’t like. All kids must learn how to politely respond when this happens. Clothes were a fact of life, but when I got a toy of some sort, my hopes were higher. There were a ton of action figures and characters that I liked, but even if it was something I liked, I might be ungrateful because something even grander had captivated my imagination. I can recall getting an Etch-a-Sketch, which my kids today might think of as some sort of ancient artifact, and that is the earliest memory I have of receiving a gift poorly.

When I was around 4, my mom would occasionally take me to the small gas station and convenience store where she worked. One of the owners of the shop once gifted me an Etch-a-Sketch. I didn’t dislike it, but when I said, “Maybe I can leave it here so I can have something to play with here,” I didn’t see any hurt in the giver’s eyes, but my mom would later tell me it was there. I had meant that the place was boring, but reflecting on it now, even that was unkind. I wasn’t thankful that they were paying mom and allowing her to bring me there for a few hours from time to time as my parents switched shifts to make sure food was on the table and I was being watched. Addie was that giver’s name; she thought of me when she didn’t have to. I was squarely thinking of myself, and how I could have been somewhere else doing something more fun.

My aunt once purchased for me what she thought was a great create your own monster truck playset. I recall being really excited about it when I first saw the package. I didn’t even wait until I got home to start tearing out the pieces, only to discover that it was a refill kit which required some more expensive tool. It was an odd take on a boy-themed “easy bake oven” to forge your own unique monster trucks. I announced my discovery loudly in front of my dear aunt. I could see the confusion and hurt in her eyes. She didn’t buy what she thought she had, and I wasn’t thankful for the time she spent looking for something just for me. I was just disappointed that my initial expectations, because of the box art, weren’t going to be met.

Even when I loved the gift and said thank you, I didn’t always take care of the gift itself. While I would blame my neighbor at the time, it was ultimately me who left the Nintendo Game Boy my parents bought me, outside, in a crayon box, to get ruined in the rain. I was convinced that we had a cool hiding place to hang out together when we played outside, and I was stashing it there as a treasure. I was not thinking of its value or if it was truly safe there. Once I realized that I had left it in the rain, I discovered It was broken, the plastic crayon box was not leak-proof, and rain had poured down and soaked the Gameboy. For my poor parents, it was expensive. I learned a hard lesson: It wasn’t replaced, even though I had only had it a few weeks. I was careless, and so no one “came to the rescue,” and I had to do without and do better the next time. It’s a story I tell my son often when I see him being careless with his own portable Nintendo system — now a switch that’s even more expensive than my Gameboy was back then.

           My poor reception of gifts came to a head when my mother had reconnected with her estranged dad and his new wife. She was the product of divorce before divorce was common, especially in the rural bible belt and she wanted to connect me with her dad. I was given an X-men action figure for a birthday, a Wolverine in a space suit to be precise. I at least muttered a “thanks” before saying, “But I already have one.”   

           My mother had told me many times before, but this time, she really got into my head. Once we were in the car home, she told me that they didn’t owe me anything, they didn’t have to get me anything, and what I was to be thankful for, was not the gift itself, but the time and thought they had put into it. She reminded me how they were fairly new in our lives, and yet they remembered what my current favorite cartoon was. They had taken the time to listen to me and tried to get something I would like. My mom was very clear: my words hurt them, and showed everyone that I was ungrateful. That reflected on me, not them.

           Sometimes I defended my harsh statements by saying that I was simply telling the truth. I was recently reconfronted with this error as an adult. As part of my DHF pastor’s zoom study group, we are reading Lois Tverberg’s Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, and the author ties this kind of action with the Jewish concept of Lashon Hara, an evil tongue. While we typically think of it has telling lies, it is often used for “the practice of telling negative truths about others that are unnecessary and damaging.” (Trveberg pg. 96) So, what if I had one already? That wasn’t the point. So what if I didn’t even like it? That wasn’t the point. I should have kept those thoughts to myself. James 3 warns of the dangers of the tongue, and from my ungrateful heart, I poured out hurtful and unnecessary words demonstrating the truths James was warning us about.

           Much of how we respond to others depends on our outlook. Our preconceptions color the way we see their actions, and unless we actively pause and remind ourselves of what really matters, we may respond selfishly, even to the kind acts of those around us if we don’t have all the information and if our focus is on our experience and pleasure, rather than on thankfulness and others. Maybe it’s not a birthday gift, but words intended as a compliment that got fumbled, a phone call that just happens to land at the wrong time, a compromise that we don’t know how much it’s costing in terms of time or effort. Because relationships matter, I’m going to pray that God controls my tongue and helps me to see the heart and intention, rather than a mere snapshot at the moment, and each birthday I have reminds me of my past failures, when I have carelessly been ungrateful towards people I love and calls me to respond better now.

           Words spoken reveal a heart issue. Luke 6:45 says, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart.” As you reflect on your own years gone by, I hope you can see God changing your heart by the evidence of how you speak to others, I know I do, and I am thankful He is continuing to transform me, because I still need it!